A pounding heart doesn't miss its big beat

January 26, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO -- Has your heart stopped pounding yet? John Elway's hasn't. Fourth-and-six for Green Bay. Fourth-and-six at the Denver 31 with 32 seconds left. One play to inflict fresh torture, or lift Elway's Super Bowl curse.

Was this for real? A Super Bowl heart-stopper? More like surreal. Or unreal. Even at the end, it seemed Elway would be deprived of the happy, delirious ending he so richly deserved.

But then John Mobley knocked down Brett Favre's last-gasp pass. The Broncos fans at Qualcomm Stadium erupted. And Elway was a Super Bowl champion at last.

Denver 31, Green Bay 24.

One of the most exciting Super Bowls in history. One of the biggest upsets. And one of the most fitting team efforts, on a night when the Broncos had to carry Elway, instead of the other way around.

Did he think the defense would stop Favre?

"I was just hoping and praying that they would," Elway said. "They had been playing great all day. Favre is the best quarterback in the league, bar none. You're never positive. You're always a little bit worried."

But no more.

"When that last ball hit the ground, it was unbelievable," Elway said.

Photographers swarmed Elway as he walked off the field with his 8-year-old-son, Jack, on his shoulders. Moments later, he referred to another Jack -- his father and former coach at Stanford -- "as my hero and my best friend."

The fans were still chanting his name an hour after the game at Qualcomm Stadium. Elway appeared on a golf cart, tipping his cap in triumph as he returned to the field for his post-game TV interviews.

"El-way! El-way!"

The cheers for America's quarterback carried from the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountains, from San Diego Bay to Green Bay, from California to the New York island.

"There's one thing I want to say tonight, and it's only four words: This one's for John," an emotional Denver owner Pat Bowlen said as he handed Elway the Super Bowl trophy on a makeshift stage.

"Other than my wife and four kids, there's nothing better than this -- and I tell you what, I can't believe it," Elway said. "It's been a lot of work. And so many things going against us, the NFC, AFC, all those type of things, oh, it's unbelievable."

A future Hall of Fame quarterback, he smiled that big smile, waved that big trophy. For two weeks, he had said that this was the strongest of his Super Bowl teams. It had to be, as erratically as he played last night.

Will anyone even remember in the aftermath of the Broncos' momentous performance? You either win or lose in the NFL. The rest, as Elway discovered over 15 trying seasons, is almost incidental.

He gets his ring now. Gets it on his fourth try. Gets it despite completing only 12 of 22 passes for 123 yards. Gets it when he easily could have been the goat of this game, instead of the sentimental hero.

Elway, 37, avoided joining Jim Kelly as the only starting quarterback to lose four Super Bowls. And the Broncos avoided becoming the first five-time Super Bowl loser, ending the AFC's 13-year losing streak.

Miami's Dan Marino must have been envious, seeing the Broncos bail out Elway. A little help from his friends? A little help from his friends. Elway got it. He deserved it. He can retire in peace, if that is what he chooses.

Terrell Davis ran everywhere but to the jeweler to secure Elway's precious ring. And when Favre tried to take it away in the final minutes, the Denver defense made like bodyguards, rising in one last glorious stand.

Davis was the MVP, the difference between all those flawed Broncos teams and this gutsy champion. In four playoff games, he rushed for 581 yards -- including 157 with a wicked headache last night.

An offensive line that kept springing Davis, a defense that intercepted Favre and made him fumble, a coverage team that recovered another fumble -- this is how the Broncos became only the second wild-card team to win a Super Bowl.

Elway? He had his moments, too, but mostly running the ball, not throwing it. His 10-yard scramble led to the Broncos' first touchdown. His 1-yard keeper produced the second. And his third-and-six scramble from the Green Bay 12 set up the third.

Two Packers drilled him on that play, but Elway got up quickly, pumping his fist. "That one he dove over the pile and got hit I was so scared," Denver safety Steve Atwater said. "I was like, 'John, don't do that uh, great play, great play.' "

The final scoring drive began from the Green Bay 49 with 3: 27 left. Even then, Elway barely contributed. The Packers got penalized 15 yards for a face mask. Howard Griffith turned a short pass into a 23-yard gain. And Davis did the rest.

To think, it all could have turned out differently after Elway tied a Super Bowl record with his seventh interception, an absolute killer into the end zone with the Broncos leading 24-17 in the third quarter.

It wasn't the Broncos' only second-half mistake. Davis lost a fumble on the first play of the third quarter. Atwater dropped an interception deep in Denver territory. Denver twice jumped offsides on fourth down.

The Packers, though, were even sloppier, finishing with three turnovers and nine penalties. They had three chances to score after forging a tie at 24 with 13: 32 left. But each time, they failed.

In the end, it didn't matter that Elway failed to throw for a touchdown or complete a single pass to Rod Smith. The Packers' early turnovers were so critical, Denver took a 17-7 lead with Elway completing only two of six pases for 13 yards.

"You've done it," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan told him afterward. "You've been the catalyst of the organization since you've been here. You've been the guy who set the standard for a number of years."

His heart kept pounding. It never, ever stopped.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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